The title, of course, refers to love: how do you know when you've found it? In most romantic comedies, the protagonists are either struck by a lightning bolt, love at first meet-cute kind of thing, or they spend the first 90 minutes of the film bickering only to fall into each others' arms in the denouement. Either way, the ending is never in doubt and love is the winner on the day.
James L. Brooks, directing his first film since Spanglish (2004), doesn't necessarily subvert the rom-com genre in any major ways but he does recognise that the dating scene – and therefore finding love – isn't as simple as Hollywood would have us believe, which is a somewhat radical notion in itself.
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) hasn't had much time for a serious romance having devoted herself to the life a professional athlete. But when she's cut from the US softball team, the 31-year-old finds herself without focus or purpose. She also finds herself the centre of romantic attention for two men, neither of whom would be classed as a modern day Mr. Darcy.
Matty (Owen Wilson) is a pro baseball player and as an athlete can understand Lisa's sudden lack of purpose. Or he would if he wasn't so self obsessed. This is a man who equates monogamy with practising safe sex with his other, anonymous sexual partners. As a consequence, of this and other selfish behaviour on Matty's part, Lisa spends a great deal of time in the film moving in and out of his penthouse apartment. She seems to be under the impression that if she works hard enough at the relationship – like in training – she'll eventually see some results.
Lisa's other suitor is George (Paul Rudd), who's placed in Lisa's orbit by a teammate as a blind date at the precise moment that George's life and career goes into free fall following some shady business dealings by his company. Despite the launch of a federal investigation into him, and the possibility of jail time, George is smitten with Lisa and eager, though cautious, to pursue her; bouncing around like a lovesick puppy whenever he's in her company.
Is this what the modern woman's choices have been reduced to: the libidinous jock and the soft-cock embezzler? Get thee to a nunnery! Brooks, who has been responsible for some smart films – Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets – is too smart to suggest this is indeed a woman's lot. This is just where Lisa happens to find herself (between a rock and a dating hard place?) and as it's the first time she's ever had to deal with romantic complications, it's a pretty good place to start. A softballer knows, you have to play the minor leagues before you get called up for the Olympics.
At two hours the film could certainly use a trim, and I could have done without the self help-inspired dialogue, as well as Jack Nicholson's distracting supporting turn (he plays George's father, and the cause of most of his troubles), but overall How Do You Know is not as bad as US reviews (it has a Metacritic score of 46/100) would have us believe. It's not a perfect film by any means, but there are far worse flirtations to endure.